Long before Brecht, long before postmodernism, Shakespeare understood the usefulness of self-referential moments in theater — those moments when the audience is reminded that what they’re seeing is a fiction, a construct. At the very beginning of Henry V, the Chorus cautions us that we’re in a theater and
Director Carolyn Howarth emphasizes this artificiality in a fine production of Henry V now at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. The set isn’t in any way realistic, but rather strangely constructed and mystifying at first: a tall, dimly lit wooden scaffolding that includes ambiguous forms — something that looks like a cradle, another shape that could be a rocking horse, and there’s a bicycle at the side of the stage, along with a piano. We seem to be in one of those undefined, could-be-anywhere locations. The actors wear a variety of costumes that come from different eras, too, anything from Victorian to modern day. As they move forward to play their parts, they put on pieces of clothing representing those characters. When someone dies, he slowly sheds the relevant hat or jacket. And as the Chorus, Sam Gregory is more often ironic than lofty, apparently letting us in on a cosmic joke.
Henry is one of those complex figures that can be interpreted in many ways. Laurence Olivier made his famous film version of Henry V during World War II with the explicit intention of heartening a population bruised and battered by bombs and the ever-looming threat of invasion. His Henry was a hero on a white horse, a pure-hearted champion, the embodiment of England’s patron saint, St. George. Of course, to achieve his goal, Olivier had to cut some of Henry’s uglier speeches and actions, such as his threats to rape the women and kill the babies in the besieged city of Harfleur, the hanging of the comic character Bardolph, and the murder of French prisoners. Kenneth Branagh made a grittier film version in 1989, emphasizing the horror of war and including the king’s less praise-worthy attributes. And Shakespeare, as always, is large enough to justify myriad interpretations.
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At the play’s beginning, Henry determines to invade France on ambiguous grounds having to do with primogeniture and succession. Also tennis balls. Much of the play deals with war in all its aspects, as both the nobility and the common people — personified by comic stumblers Pistol,
The battle scenes in this production lack the excitement that would give such themes the vibrating intensity they deserve — particularly now that the United States seems trapped in a cycle of endless war. Perhaps it takes a wooden O with more technical resources than the university theater to create a convincing battlefield. And I have to argue with some of the costumes — particularly the jacket that seems to half-smother the Chorus and the cheesy Union Jack-striped top that Henry wears after his victory.
But the direction is good, and the acting carries the day. Gregory puts an intriguing stamp on the role of the Chorus, Lawrence Hecht is perfect as Fluellen, and Bjorn Arvidsson’s Archbishop of Canterbury manages to be sincerely insincere as he tells Henry exactly what he wants to hear. Martha Harmon Pardee is effective as Hostess Nell describing the death of Falstaff (whose presence looms large even though he never appears on stage here) and does a nice turn as waiting lady to Princess Katherine, charmingly played by Jenna Bainbridge. It’s Benjamin Bonenfant’s magnificent Henry V that makes this a can’t-miss show, though. He’s enthralling to watch, and his Henry is so original, right, tough, supple and intelligent that the role becomes entirely new — and deserving of a place with the major interpretations of the past.
Henry V, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9,